‘Build upon what’s already there’: How heritage can contribute to a sustainable future

The Dominican Church in Maastricht is a famous example of redevelopment of a historic building: it houses a bookshop since 2007. Image: Sb2s3/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As Europe is looking to build a sustainable future, the question arises of how buildings can contribute to that future. And while building new, more sustainable houses, offices and other structures is a good idea, the repurposing of existing structures is a practice perhaps more people should be talking about. Newly redeveloped locations already show that such a change in perspective is paying off: saving resources and connecting society to their heritage.

“In earlier years or centuries it was completely self-evident to keep building on things when they were finally there. It was simply a way to conserve resources by using existing things”, explains Greman architect Peter Brückner, to DW. He was involved with repurposing a former jail in Tirschenreuth, Bavaria (Germany), into a place for educational purposes. A development which is also historically correct he reckons. “As we know, churches were built upon and other buildings too.”

It’s a bit of an update, saying that buildings are valuable to society simply because they have a place in people’s minds

Peter Kuchenreuther

The architect believes that these old buildings can make a new contribution to society, such as a former jail in Tirschenreuth. “For us, this has to do with respect for the location, and for the energy that has gone into building these locations”, explains Brückner. And by changing the function and repurposing the structure, the former jail is now contributing again to society in a way a brand-new educational building might not have been able to.

“It’s a bit of an update or a reset button for real estate, saying that buildings are valuable to society simply because they have a place in people’s minds”, stresses architect Peter Kuchenreuther the importance of keeping the historic dimension when repurposing old buildings alive. Because if an old building is demolished, the existing memories people have of that place will fade as well. By redeveloping old structures, society will benefit from their new use, and keep their heritage through memory. “And these memories become effectively more than the sum of their parts. We’re not building a structure then, we’re building a city”, says Kuchenreuther.

‘Redevelopment Culture’

Of course, it’s not simple to adapt buildings to meet modern environmental standards. High-profile projects such as the European Green Deal are aiming to make sure new and existing buildings become more sustainable, although built heritage can be excluded from these rules. And what about the New European Bauhaus project? The EU hopes to envision an ‘enriching, sustainable and inclusive’ future for Europe, including buildings.

Big words backed up with big funding and lots of energy and commitment. However, working with what there already is, can be a viable, and sustainable way of using resources. “Building within existing structures is vital when it comes to meeting our climate targets”, states Tim Rieniets, author of the book UMBAUKULTUR (redevelopment culture).

“Because, and this is something not fully understood yet, just the construction of the building alone is incredibly energy intensive”, he says. “In other words, before I turn on the heating or the lights in my new home, I already had to invest masses of energy into building it in the first place.”

The Holz-Blockhaus in Landshut (Germany), dates from 1486 an iconic, and redeveloped heritage building. Image: August64/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

No finished state

And like the former jail in Tirschenreuth, Europe has countless examples of successfully redeveloped buildings, which have become iconic landmarks. Take for example the former Dominican Church in Maastricht, the Netherlands, which now houses a bookstore. Or the flashy Elbe Philharmonic Hall in Hamburg, Germany, where a glass construction was built upon an old brick warehouse to create one of the largest concert halls in Europe. Or a recent project in Ede, the Netherlands, where a massive former factory has been repurposed for housing amongst other things.

“It takes time for the energy to amass in a building, and the attraction of these conversions lies in being able to tap it”, reckons architect Markus Stenger. His architecture agency repurposed a wooden house in Landshut originally built in 1486. It changed ownership over forty times, and throughout the years people kept building or changing the original structure, putting in tons of energy and resources, Stenger feels that the building is an excellent example of using buildings in a way society has forgotten today: that constructions around us are in a ‘finished state.’

“And that’s what we want, that once it’s nicely finalized, then it’s ready for use. But we’ve realized this isn’t the case”, Stenger says. “To me what’s most important about the house is that you see a building that stood for more than 540 years. One that has proven its resilience enough to accommodate every possible use. Every social order, every function, and every type of person.” And by repurposing it, Landshut is now an iconic, well-preserved landmark richer. “To sum it up simply, it’s making a non-place into a place again”, says Stenger. When people have a connection to a place, they start to care about it in a certain way, and it becomes part of a collective memory.

Update the perspective

In short, the real estate and building sector would seriously benefit from a new perspective on old buildings. Instead of demolishing old structures, looking at opportunities to repurpose them for new functions could be a sustainable addition to Europe’s future. Building upon existing structures is ‘the most sustainable approach of all’, states Brückner.

And apart from saving resources and energy, repurposing old buildings creates another vital advantage: with new functions, structures can make a contribution to society again. People will become more aware of the history of a building and their environment, and that connection with the past can become a great way to truly connect society to its past, which otherwise would have been demolished and forgotten.

This article was originally published in English. Texts in other languages are AI-translated. To change language: go to the main menu above.